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“At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, ‘Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.’ He said in reply, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He said in reply, ‘It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.’ Then Jesus said to her in reply, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour” (Matthew 15:21-28).
 
The Canaanite woman’s appeal is not an unusual one. Many times throughout the Gospels we find people petitioning Jesus to heal their loved ones. In this instance, however, Jesus’ response is surprising. He is unconcerned and becomes quite hostile as her pleas continue. Jesus tells her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But she will not be deterred and continues her pleas. The Canaanite woman finally perseveres, and her daughter is healed.

So, why was Jesus so unreceptive to the woman in the beginning? The context of this Gospel gives us the answer. The majority of Matthew’s audiences are converts to Christianity from Judaism. This passage reflects an understandable presumption from this group that Jesus’ message was meant only for the Jews. This community also included Gentiles, converts from paganism. These two groups, who were so different in their religious backgrounds and culture, were united in their profession of the Christian faith and became the new People of God.

The manner in which this encounter unfolds depicts this struggle. Jesus, as a Jewish male, is at risk of becoming “unclean” by speaking with a Canaanite woman. Yet through his conversation with this “untouchable” woman, we witness a change in Jesus’ responses. It is here that we come to recognize the inclusive love intended for the Jews was meant for the Gentiles as well.

“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15: 28).

It’s the intensity of the Canaanite woman’s conviction and the passion of her faith that enabled Jesus to change his perception in the end.

So what is Matthew challenging us to learn through this episode? Should we question the way we listen to some voices and not others? Are there certain people or messages that are difficult for us to hear? If we take this story to heart,the witness of Jesus urges us to expect the call to conversion in some of the most unlikely places, and to be attentive when we hear it.

Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.

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It_is_I“After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. ‘It is a ghost,’ they said, and they cried out in fear. At once Jesus spoke to them, ‘Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter said to him in reply, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ After they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:22-33).
 
In this Gospel passage, Jesus is responding to a part of the human condition that everyone experiences—storms. Who hasn’t found himself or herself at a time in life when the storm winds seem to blow against their plans, hopes, and dreams? Who hasn’t felt just a bit seasick as life tipped first this way and then that?
 
We often read this story and pause to think of our own storms, the times or moments in our own lives when everything seemed topsy-turvy, but not Jesus. Jesus knew his disciples’ fears, confusion, losses, moments of despair, desires for love and grace. In calling Peter to come to him upon the water, Jesus was teaching us how to respond to one another. We are to become more aware of one another’s fears and needs—and then invite one another to a safe, loving place with us. We are to be Jesus for them.
 
In today’s world, it is easy to imagine people living in stormy times: poor women raising children alone; families who have lost their source of income; older adults feeling the first signs of dementia; people with AIDS/HIV; people losing faith; nations suffering civil war; children shooting other children; drugs; pornography; abuse; loss of love, and the end of relationships.
 
Having faith in Jesus is not mere lip service. It leads us to do what Jesus did: to call others to the safety and love of relationship with us in Christ’s name.
 
– What gifts have you received that would allow you to “be Jesus” for others in stormy times?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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Transfiguration“Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother, John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone” (Matthew 17:1-8).
 
The contrast between light and darkness plays an important part in the accounts of the Transfiguration in the Gospels. In this mystical episode, light—a brilliant, white light—is a sign of the divinity of Jesus. The three apostles, who saw Jesus not only bathed in this light but emitting it from his own person, were getting a privileged glimpse of the Reality—the presence of God in the world here and now—that transcends the usual experiences of human life.
 
Moreover, Peter, James, and John could see in this shimmering tableau the images of Moses and Elijah who had been faithful to God, who had served God’s people, and who, through the sacrifice of Jesus, would live in the glow of God’s presence—a promise the apostles might apply to themselves.
 
No wonder Peter did not want that light to be dimmed, did not want that moment to end. But it did end, and it ended in the darkness of a gathering cloud.
 
Pope Benedict XVI suggested in a homily that we all may experience something similar: “a momentary foretaste of what will constitute the happiness of Paradise. … usually brief experiences that are sometimes granted by God, especially prior to difficult trials.”
 
This insight, this intuition, this awareness may occur during prayer, during liturgy, during reading and contemplation, during an exercise of charity or compassion.
 
How reassuring it would be if we could “see” God every day as the apostles saw him in the blazing light on Tabor, but Pope Benedict reminded us that our path in this life is illuminated by “the interior light that is kindled in us by listening to the Word of God.”
 
This, Pope Benedict said, “is the gift and duty for each one of us. … to listen to Christ… To listen to him in his Word, contained in Sacred Scripture. To listen to him in the events of our lives, seeking to decipher in them the messages of Providence. Finally, to listen to him in our brothers and sisters, especially in the lowly and the poor, to whom Jesus himself demands our concrete love. To listen to Christ and obey his voice: this is the principle way, the only way, that leads to the fullness of joy and of love” (Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus, March 12, 2006).
 
– In what ways do you respond to the Father’s command regarding his Son: “Listen to him”?
 

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“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it’” (Matthew 13:44-46).
 
 
In this series of sayings, Jesus continues his teaching about the reign of God. What will it be like? What can we expect? His teaching is both clear as a bell and yet filled with mystery we cannot fully grasp. The treasure in the field he describes must have been very great, indeed. The fellow who found it, the text tells us, hid it so he could go and buy the entire field! He sold all he had to possess this great treasure.
 
And the merchant who sold everything to buy that fine pearl must have nearly put himself out of business. Apparently it wasn’t the enterprise of selling pearls that attracted him but the beauty of the one fine pearl that superseded all others. Apparently half measures won’t do when it comes to fine pearls.
 
In today’s world, it can be very difficult to sort out the good pearls from all the others. We are confused by a cacophony of noise coming from everywhere: media, Internet, neighbors, family, and our own inner voices. Which voice is of God? How can we sort it out? The key to all this is found in a simple word, easy to overlook, in the first line of the reading. Look again.
 
Jesus teaches us that the mark of the right choice, the way we can know it, is that we will experience joy. In the old Baltimore Catechism, widely used in the Church until the Second Vatican Council, we were taught that God made us to know, love, and serve him but with the ultimate goal of being happy. When you pause to take the temperature of your conscience, finding deep joy tells you that you have made the right choices, even if the times are tough, even if the work is terribly hard. Still, if there is joy deep in your heart, it is a sign that God’s reign is present within you.
 
– What are the times or decisions in your life that have clearly resulted in a deep inner sense of joy?
 
Adapted from PrayerTime: Faith-Sharing Reflections on the Sunday Gospels, available at the RENEW International store

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sidewalkThe Mission Co-op preacher in our parish this year was a Maryknoll priest who said that Africa, where he worked for many years, is no longer “mission territory.”
 
I don’t know how the Church categorizes the Muslim countries in the northern Africa, but I have seen the overall Catholic population of the continent placed at around 200 million—nearly three times the Catholic population of the United States and Canada. The World Christian Database estimates that there will be more than 450 million Catholics in Africa by 2050.
 
And from what I’ve heard from that priest and others familiar with the Church in Africa, this phenomenon isn’t just in the census.
 
Masses in Africa are packed, I am told, and they are joyous occasions, marked by song and dance and fellowship, and folks aren’t looking at their watches or making for the door right after Communion. In fact, a missionary sister who spoke to an adult group at my parish last year said churchgoers in Africa feel shortchanged if the homilist doesn’t speak for half an hour.
 
There is a parallel boom in religious vocations in Africa. The Bigard Memorial Seminary in Nigeria, with more than a thousand students, is said to be the largest in the world.
 
That’s all good news, but it doesn’t mean that the concept of “mission territory” is no longer relevant.
 
Pope Francis has been telling us for the past four years not only that there still is mission territory—namely our own immediate surroundings—but also that we are the missionaries.
 
He doesn’t mean that we are called upon to convert non-Christians to the faith as though we were Junípero Serra in the Baja.
 
Rather, Francis means that we are called to be more than parishioners; that we are called to be missionary disciples who spread the faith far beyond the walls of our local churches.
 
The Pope has inspired some debate by saying that this missionary discipleship does not mean proselytizing—that is, directly trying to convert someone from one religion to another.
 
Some Catholics have objected that such an approach can lead to the idea that religious truth is a matter of personal choice.
 
But Francis has explained that the Church is more likely to grow and become more vibrant and effective by making itself attractive than by arguing doctrine.
 
In other words, if I read the Holy Father correctly, the Church’s future lies in helping people, including disaffected and lukewarm Catholics, see beyond superficial appearances and outmoded or simply false impressions.
 
The pope himself gives a perfect example of this. He doesn’t compromise on the dogmatic teachings of the Church, but because of his public image—and especially the joy he finds in his faith, and the magnanimity with which he greets people of all faiths or no faith—far more people than ever in recent history are paying attention to what the leader of the Catholic Church says on issues of mutual respect, social justice, political integrity, and moral responsibility.
 
When he named his famed apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” it wasn’t a casual decision.
 
The whole world witnesses the joy that this man finds in his religious faith, and the world takes notice.
 
When he asks us to be missionary disciples, he is asking us to let others see the joy that fills us because of our encounter with Jesus Christ, to gently tell our faith stories whenever opportunities arise, and so to present the Church as a caring and inviting home.
 
This post was originally published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese and managing editor at RENEW International.

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